The Shadow of Takeryuu:Part Eight
It was rainy and cool on the morning Eunji first saw the Imperial City. Built on a flattened mountain top, the sprawling complex of buildings was surrounded by a thick wall, on top of which tall banners flapped imposingly. Below, the mountain dropped off in sheer cliffs, its roots hidden in mists that swirled around it and the other pillar-like peaks in this mountain range.
Eunji stared at the place in amazement, but at the same time her heart sank. "It looks inaccessible to Neopets who cannot fly," she said.
"It is very well-defended," Wai Ren said as rain dripped off the rim of his bamboo hat. "But there is a way in." He pointed further down the road, to what looked like a dock that jutted out from the side of the mountain. "Those dirigibles are the only way in and out of Shenkuu for non-flying Neopets." One of the unusual craft that bobbed at the docks suddenly released its moorings and took off across the gaping chasm, over the mist and toward the city.
"Wow!" Min said. "I’ve never seen one of those before! How do they work?"
"They are propelled by air motes," Wai Ren explained as he led them toward the docks. "Normally, you need to have filled out the proper documentation in order to enter the city, but…" He grinned. "I have quite a few allies here. That’s who I’ve been sending Naleaps to this past week. Getting everything arranged for our arrival."
"I just hope none of them decide to sell us out," Ganzorig said.
Wai Ren nodded. "If they did, though, I think we could handle it," the Kougra said. "Min’s prowess with her weapon has increased amazingly these past few weeks."
Min beamed. "Thank you," she said. "But it was due to your tutelage."
"All of my teaching would have done nothing," Wai Ren said, "if you had not had the drive to learn from it."
"I’m glad you two are getting along," Eunji said with a smile. "Life’s so much more pleasant when we’re all friends."
Wai Ren chuckled and said, "I am beginning to see the merit in your sentimental philosophies." His amusement faded as he looked out at the city beyond. "But I do not think the emperor will be so easy to convince."
"I understand, don’t worry," Eunji said. "We must stop his shadow from spreading, and I will not allow him to continue his tyranny. But it would be nice if he listened to me."
That was the end of that conversation, as they drew nearer to other Neopets coming from and going to the Imperial City, hauling wagons of cargo or armfuls of bamboo books. Wai Ren led them to one of the smaller dirigibles, where a blue Chia sat against the hull of the craft, playing a set of bamboo pipes.
When he saw the travelers approach, the Chia stopped his playing and stood up. "Greetings," he said, raising a paw. "Tell me, have you seen any Kazeriu lately?"
"Yes," Wai Ren said. "One flew over a waterfall."
The Chia smiled. "Welcome back, General," he said. "I hope your journey went well."
"About as well as could be expected," Wai Ren said as he followed the Chia into the cabin of the craft, and Eunji and the others joined him.
The geomancer took a seat on one of the bamboo benches and stared out the window. "This is incredible," she said to Ganzorig, who sat next to her. "I did not know such things as this existed. Where I come from, if you do not have wings, you travel from mountain to mountain just by walking. It is considered a form of meditation."
"And I suppose out there, you’re never in much hurry," Ganzorig said. He lifted the Naleap mask from his belt and let out a small sigh.
"Well, let’s get this party started!" Min said as she propped an elbow on a bench. "I’d like to see how these things work!"
"Sure, you can watch from the cockpit!" the Chia said. Once the four had joined him at the front of the craft, he said, "There’s a compartment of air motes at the aft of the vessel. See, these controls here open and close valves that send air to the motes. When they sense air flow in a certain direction, it’s their natural inclination to amplify the airstream."
Eunji and Ganzorig wandered into the cockpit to watch as well. "That airstream then gets pushed out of a vent," the Chia concluded, "which moves the craft in a certain direction. Observe." He sat in the pilot’s chair and pulled a lever.
Eunji sensed the thrum of magic from somewhere behind her, and suddenly the craft shot forward, gliding across the gulf just like a normal ship through water.
"Amazing!" Min said, looking out one of the windows. "I wish all of Shenkuu had this technology!"
Wai Ren chuckled. "It’s a fairly new idea," he said, "and it’s only seen use around the Imperial City so far. But who knows, perhaps someday knowledge of how to build airships will spread and improve."
Ganzorig’s eyes grew large. "Could we use one of these to sail all around Neopia?" he asked.
Their Chia pilot rubbed his chin and said, "I am not sure they are powerful enough for that… yet. But who knows what the years might bring."
To this, Ganzorig merely grunted and looked back at his Naleap mask. Eunji reached out and patted his arm, and he smiled feebly at her.
"Well, go ahead and take a seat," the Chia said. "It’ll take a few minutes for us to get there. Unless you’d like to stand behind me and tell me what to do, as if you know this craft better than I," he added with a smirk.
Wai Ren grinned. "Don’t worry," he said, "Min’s excellent at that."
The Aisha laughed and rolled her eyes. "Well, someone’s got to keep you in line," she said. "But I really would like to stay and watch, if it’s no trouble."
Meanwhile, Eunji and Ganzorig retreated back to the main cabin. Eunji was also curious about the workings of these magical vessels, but she had much more hanging over her head right now. She figured that after today, she would have more time for lower-priority matters such as satisfying her own curiosity.
With a knot in her stomach, she sank onto one of the benches and watched the mist fly by beneath them while rain plunked hollowly on the enormous air bladder above them. Every moment brought them closer to a destiny a month in the making—no, a lifetime in the making.
Ganzorig sat next to her. "What’s wrong?" he asked.
Eunji glanced up at him, then turned and hugged his arm. "I am beginning to be nervous," she admitted.
He put a paw on her head and mussed her feathers a bit. "You, nervous?" he asked with a smile. "What have you to be nervous about? You have boldly journeyed far from your home for the sake of mending an unbalanced world. You have led us in fighting off all of the foes we have faced in our travels, from enraged Petpets, to manifestations of the very elemental forces themselves, to even a faerie. You have cleaved darkness asunder without a hint of fear on your face. And you have shown the most unlikely of Neopets the power of compassion."
The Vandagyre chuckled. "Well, when you put it that way, I sound nearly too good to be true," she said. "It’s just… everything we’ve done so far has led up to this point and it’s just now hit me. We’re really doing this. It isn’t just something we’ve been talking about and planning about—it’s something that’s going to happen in a matter of minutes. And we’re either going to succeed or fail."
"There is always the possibility of failure," Ganzorig said, "but you have told me several times that everything happens for a reason, and I believe it. We were meant to meet in the woods on that day. We were meant to save Min and go along with Wai Ren’s plans. Look at how much good has come of it. Who is to say more good will not come of it?"
"You’re beginning to sound like Master Cheol," Eunji said with a laugh.
"If I do," Ganzorig said, "it’s just because of the things you taught me."
"Give yourself more credit," Eunji said. "You are wise and astute. I can see it in you. Neopets should not underestimate you because of your appearance or way of living." They were almost to the city now. The walls rose up tall and forbidding, and the red-and-gold banners waved in the breeze as if trying to shoo intruders away.
Eunji drew her knees to her chest. "You’re right, Ganzorig," she said. "I do not think Master Cheol was warned in those dreams if there was not something to be done about it. He is very good at listening to his heart, and he would not have sent me if his heart told him otherwise. I want to believe we were meant to succeed. And…" She swallowed hard. "Even if we fail, I think good will come out of it. Someone has to stand up to Takeryuu, even if it is just to inspire others to do the same."
"I’m going to keep you safe through this, all right?" Ganzorig said. "I can’t bear the thought of anything happening to you."
Eunji squeezed his paw. "Thank you," she said. "I promise I’ll do everything I can to come out on top of this. Master Cheol says that you must envision the future you desire if you wish to make that future a possibility. I think we can do this. I want to think we were meant to succeed."
"I think so, too," Ganzorig said. He grinned. "At any rate, if we can get through a surprise attack by seven shock elementals in the middle of the night, I think we’re more than prepared for a coup!"
"Ah, don’t remind me of that," Eunji said with a laugh. "I had lightning arcing between my antennae until morning." Still, she was grateful for the cheering up.
Ganzorig looked her in the eye more seriously. "You can do this," he said. "I know you’re too humble to realise this, but you are the leader of our group. We are all in awe of your strength and perseverance. I fully believe in you. I really think you could move mountains if you needed to. And I am not just saying that because I have seen you move trees and rocks."
Eunji grinned bashfully. "Thank you," she said. "But please know that I put just as much faith in you and our friends. You are all so strong." She sat up straighter and took a deep breath. "You know what? I really do think we can do this! And I’m not going to waste any more time worrying about it! We are going to go in there and set things right!"
"There you go!" Ganzorig said, putting his paws on his knees. "All right, let’s get this done!"
The craft slowed to a stop, and Eunji looked out the window and realised they had reached the city walls. Another network of docks extended from one side of the city, leading to a large gate in the wall through which Neopets passed.
"All right, here’s the plan," Wai Ren said as he, Min, and the pilot emerged from the cockpit. "Just follow me. I know some secret passages into the palace—we can access them through the back streets. It would be wise to let me do all the talking."
As they passed through the city gates, the guards stared at them. Eunji guessed they had never seen such a motley crew before, but thankfully they did not seem to recognise Wai Ren. His hat hid his face and he clutched his cloak tightly around his armour.
Then it was on to the city proper. Eunji had never seen anyplace so busy. Even in the drizzle that slicked the paved streets, Neopets and their Petpets bustled about the wide avenues, buying and selling wares, transporting cargo, or just standing under the eaves and gossiping about politics. The Vandagyre felt so out-of-place. This was nothing like the peaceful harmony of the temple.
It didn’t help that a lingering unease lurked beneath it all. No one looked happy. Guards stood everywhere, as though just waiting for an excuse to punish civilians, and Eunji caught snatches of hushed conversation about food prices being too high and the latest unfair laws.
As she and the others followed Wai Ren off the main avenue, their feet splashing through puddles, Eunji glanced up at the palace in the distance, looking like a faded painting past all the rain. Again worries came crashing down in her mind. She reached over and squeezed Ganzorig’s arm as they turned the corner into a narrow alleyway.
The Lupe glanced down at her and put his paw on hers. "Hey," he said, "it’s going to be all right. I know it, and I know you know it."
"What if I choose evil this day?" Eunji asked. "What if I am not as stalwart as I would like to believe?"
For a moment Ganzorig did not respond, composing his thoughts. Then he smiled at her. "My dear friend," he said, "I can offer you words of solace forever, but it is your responsibility to accept them. I cannot change your mind for you."
"Yes, you are right," Eunji said. "I’m sorry. Sometimes I think the most difficult person to believe in is yourself."
"I know the feeling," Ganzorig said. "It seems this is a hurdle we both must overcome. But the alternative would be to succumb to doubt and despair. Listen to your heart and hang on to that, no matter how hard it is to believe."
Eunji chuckled. "You do sound so much like Master Cheol," she said. "You really must meet him after this. I think he would like you a lot."
"Well, that is quite the compliment," Ganzorig said with a grin. "I shall look forward to meeting your teacher on my way to Tyrannia."
"Good," Eunji said, but she was unable to get herself to be fully happy with that answer. She did not want Ganzorig to leave for Tyrannia—it was much too far away. After everything they had been through together, she really did consider him, Min, and even Wai Ren to be her best friends. She could not bear the thought of losing touch with any of them.
Wai Ren’s sudden halt broke Eunji out of her thoughts. "Ah, here we are," the Kougra said. The four stood in front of a tall stone wall at the end of an alley. Garbage littered the ground, and a mound of broken barrels and crates had accumulated against the wall.
The general grabbed an armful of debris and shoved it aside. "Ganzorig, a little help here," he said.
"Why not," Ganzorig said, donning his Blurgah mask. With the strength of the two combined, they made quick work of the pile. Behind it was a small, simple wooden door.
Wai Ren grinned. "Right this way," he said as he opened the door and escorted them inside. The passageway beyond was so small that Wai Ren had to duck and Ganzorig resorted to moving on all fours. It was long and dark, lit only by the occasional dormant fire mote living in a wall alcove.
"What is this place?" Min asked, her whisper echoing on the barren stone.
"One of many secret passages into the palace," Wai Ren said. "When you are royalty, it is always wise to have plenty of escape routes. I did some snooping when I was stationed here in the capital. Looks like it’s paid off."
Gradually the passage began to slant upward, and then they reached another unassuming door. Here, Wai Ren stopped and turned to his friends. "I’m going to create an army now," he said. "This is where I’ll need your help. Creating and maintaining my soldiers drains my energy, and it’ll be even worse when I’m summoning them from a distance like I must do now. I’ll do my best to fight, but can I rely on you to watch my back?"
"Of course," Min said. "Don’t worry, I’ve got you covered."
"As do we," Eunji said, and Ganzorig nodded.
The Kougra smiled. "Thank you, friends," he said. "Here goes." Kneeling down, he planted his paws on the stone floor, closed his eyes, and drew a deep breath. His shoulders jerked as though he was trying to tug something from the floor, and the fur on his tail bushed out as his whiskers trembled.
While nothing visibly happened around them, Eunji’s feathers ruffled. She could feel the energy of the earth moving around them, energising and connecting with Wai Ren’s energy.
Finally Wai Ren stood back up with a grunt, rubbing his face with his arm. "There," he breathed. "We’ll see how long I can keep that up."
"Where are they?" Ganzorig asked.
"I’ve formed them out of the mountain this city sits on," Wai Ren said, leaning against the wall with a tired chuckle. "They should be making their way toward the palace as we speak. At any rate, now it’s time to do our part."
He reached for the door and pushed it open, into a vast, warmly-lit space that smelled of expensive fragrances. It was an enormous hallway lined with pillars, the ceiling decorated with elaborate gold-painted carvings. The floor had been polished so thoroughly that Eunji could see her own reflection in the light of the huge lanterns that hung from the ceiling—at least, on the parts of the floor that weren’t covered by intricately woven rugs.
Ganzorig at least had the good manners to shake all of the water off himself before stepping into the palace. "Well, this puts the governor’s residence to shame, eh Wai Ren?" he asked.
The Kougra sniffed. "After today," he said, "this will all be mine anyway."
"Ah, there you are!" said a female voice. Bustling toward them was a green Poogle in the robes of a court official, clutching a short scroll of bamboo slats.
Min’s ears turned back and she reached for her pudao, but Wai Ren put out a paw to stop her. "It’s all right," the Kougra said. "This is one of our allies. Himiko, it is good to see you again." He bowed to the Poogle.
She returned the bow, and then moved closer to the four to speak in a lower voice. "You’ve found quite the unusual band of accomplices, Wai Ren," Himiko said, putting her paw to her mouth in a polite giggle.
Wai Ren smiled proudly. "They are not just my accomplices," he said. "They are my friends. I would not be here without them."
"Ah, that is good to hear," Himiko said. "We are all ready here. Your sympathisers carry the yellow chrysanthemum with them, as you requested." She flashed the golden flower between her fingers before tucking it back into her sleeve. "Have you summoned your army?"
"I just did," Wai Ren said. "Stay close to them during the fighting—they will keep you safe."
Himiko nodded. "What about you? Will you be all right confronting the emperor?"
Wai Ren smiled. "With my friends beside me," he said, "I cannot fail. We will speak again when this is over. Then we can discuss the particulars of my coronation."
"Happily," Himiko said. "May fortune favour you, General." She bowed again.
"I believe this is more than fortune," Wai Ren said, bowing as well. "This is fate. But thank you. Stay safe."
"I shall," Himiko said as the four departed.
Traversing the palace seemed to take forever to Eunji. She supposed it was partly because the building was so enormous, practically an entire city unto itself. But it was also partly because she felt as though they could just not reach the emperor quickly enough.
They passed through a maze of halls, trying to act natural as they crossed paths with the occasional guard or official who thankfully did not stop to ask questions. Finally, Wai Ren led them to a tall set of doors with two guards standing by, a Skeith and a Wocky.
Wai Ren folded his arms into his sleeves. "We seek audience with Emperor Takeryuu," he said. He was tense and shaking slightly, and Eunji could sense his energy being spread thin with controlling his army from a distance, but he retained his composure admirably.
"And just who are you?" the Wocky asked. "Do you have a previous appointment?"
"They may pass," the Skeith said. "They are here on special business." He grinned as he reached up to scratch his ear—tucked behind it was a yellow chrysanthemum.
Wai Ren’s eyes narrowed in the hint of a smile as the guards opened the doors for him.
Another wave of anxiety slammed into Eunji. She looked up at Ganzorig as she forced her legs to move. He was right. She was ultimately responsible for her own inner peace. She could either tell herself that she could do this, or forever live in unnecessary doubt and fear.
She clenched her beak tightly, curled her fists, and stepped inside with her friends.
To be continued…